According to Bruce Harris, founder of Conferon Inc., the largest independent meeting planner in the United States, innovation comes from continually questioning the way things are done.
“I took what was the norm, and I challenged it. I said, ‘Isn’t there a better way to do this?‘” he says.
Harris — a 2001 Innovation in Business Master Innovator — founded Conferon 31 years ago on an idea that came to him while working for a friend’s hotel rep company. In talking to a client one day — which happened to be Parker Hannifin Corp. — about booking rooms at the hotel he was representing, the client mentioned that hotels “just don’t get it about business meetings.”
Shortly after that conversation, Harris’ friend left the company, and Harris took over and converted it into a meeting planning organization.
Harris’ ideas for his new venture came from asking questions.
“The more I got involved, I realized it was the planner who didn’t understand,” Harris recalls. “They didn’t understand how to communicate with the venue: the vocabulary, the time needs, how to order information … ”
First he learned the hotel’s side, then he went back to the corporate planners and began to organize their thoughts, so that when those ideas were presented to the hotel, all parties were speaking the same language. He set up standards for the way meetings are planned and run; those standards are now used by most of today’s $100 billion hotel industry.
“Part of innovation is listening and being observant about aberrations and things that are not working well,” he says.
Harris found more opportunities to question his industry when the editor of an industry trade magazine asked him to write a series of columns. In searching for topic ideas, he started to challenge the widely accepted processes and methods used in the hotel industry. Again, by questioning the norm, he was able to come up with better ways to do things.
“I was just looking for a standard of fairness,” Harris says. “I wasn’t looking for an advantage to the planner, I wasn’t looking for an advantage to the hotel. We were the first to challenge what was going on in the industry and make changes.”
One of the methods he challenged and subsequently changed was the way in which hotels charge a corporate client for an open, or corporately hosted, bar.
“Liquor is where the client loses the most money,” Harris says. “Hotels were using a pour top at a cash bar, but when it was a hosted bar, they’d put speed pours on.”
If the bartender poured a couple more ounces of liquor into a drink, the client was charged for a drink and a half, or a double. So Harris bought his own pour tops, and insisted on using them at his clients’ hosted bars.
“There was a lot of resistance from the hotels, because the hotels did not want to treat the client the same way back then as they treated themselves,” he says. “It ended up saving tremendous amounts of money. For one company, they had been charged for seven drinks per person in an hour. Of course they didn’t drink that much. We dropped that down to less than two (drinks per person per hour) at the first function.”
He also challenged the way in which hotels decide on meeting room sizes. Conferon now uses mathematical formulas to figure out how many people will fit into a particular size room.
“In the past, hotels could be off 40 to 50 percent in terms of what their capacities were. And the buyer had to beware,” he says. “So for the first time, we were able to give some real consistency and quality to what was going on.”
On the audio-visual side, he also challenged the standards.
“Oftentimes, the standards were set up by the suppliers wanting to sell as much of what they could. The standard wasn’t determined by, ‘What is the highest quality for the participant?'” Harris says. “So we changed the focus to quality for the participant, instead of being a supplier focus. That ended up being radical.”
One of the most drastic industry changes Conferon instigated was to the way contracts are written.
“We used to have a handshake for contracts,” he says. “When it went from a handshake to a written contract, it was totally one-sided. You signed what the hotel gave you. And that was it.”
Harris completely revamped that process, creating contracts that served both the hotel and the buyer. The company made a significant and lasting change to the way hotels drew up their contracts.
“The changes that we made are now basic in most contracts you see in hotels all around the country today,” he says.
The contracts used today are based on the simple premise of, as Harris puts it, “what is fair, what is right.”
With 220 employees in offices in Boston, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Chicago and Denver, Twinsburg-based Conferon is the largest meeting planner company in the country.
“I guess I’m known as the father of independent meeting planning,” Harris humbly admits.
While he had almost no competition when he founded the company in 1971, there are now nearly 5,000 independent meeting planners in the United States.
In purchasing 1.5 million hotel rooms a year, Twinsburg-based Conferon is the largest single buyer of hotel rooms in the world.
“If you were to talk to the VP of Hyatt, Marriott, Sheraton or Hilton, and ask them, ‘What’s different about Conferon?’ they’d say, ‘What isn’t different about Conferon?’ I’m really proud of that.” How to reach: Conferon, (330) 425-8333 or www.conferon.com
Connie Swenson ([email protected]) is editor of SBN Magazine in Akron and Stark.